Haruki Murakami’s Postmodern Existentialism

As a university student majoring in English, I tend to write many essays about literature or theory. So, I decided to start posting up the papers which I have no intention on continuing to labor on in an effort to publish. I figure that posting them here, and allowing other people to glimpse what Undergraduate work is like, is better than leaving them to rust in my hard drive.

The following paper is the term paper I handed in my my ENG 181 class: Literary Theory and Interpretation. It examines Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s fiction while keeping the philosophic in mind, of how he utilizes existential and postmodern ideas in his writing to come about a sort of bourgeois tragedy. The paper holds up rather well, in my opinion, despite it being written close to three years ago.

Primarily, the paper focuses on Murakami’s book Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. So, if you want to decide for yourselves on what Murakami’s philosophy is all about, then that would be the book to buy.

Be sure to look for more of my essays in the future!



Haruki Murakami’s Postmodern Existentialism

            “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely-or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.”— OSCAR WILDE

Industrial Capitalism has created many societal perversions but none so more than the isolation and hopelessness which pervades Haruki Murakami’s work Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Interior to the novel is seen two distinct yet intertwined realities: that of what Guy Debord called the “Spectacle of the Society” and another of a conceptual pre-industrial fantasy. If life is defined by action, however, then seldom is there reason for living. Chiyoko Kawakami’s analysis of Hardboiled’s hypothesis remains valid; the Proposition: is failure to integrate into a society mediated by commodities and their social relation (“Hyper-reality”) preferred to “unreality” (self-imposed exile) even if it is revealed that the latter is an accelerated dystopia of the former? There is no clear answer. Due to the fact that hyperreality and unreality are actually two parts of the same whole, the uneasy conclusion is that preference to one amounts to a favoring of certain oppressive aspects over other traits. Unreality being nothing more than a perfected version of hyperreality introduces the lynchpin of the argument as well as the primary narrative contradiction: utopia is not achievable through capitalistic methods, those which utilize markets and items, but rather, through mutual cooperation; just the same, dystopia is only possible through the habits of a healthy market economy, a statement proven by the narrative in Murakami’s novel.

Unsurprisingly, the protagonist in Hardboiled is suited to reaching said plain. Explored in Chiyoko Kawakami’s The Unfinished Cartography: Murakami Haruki and the Postmodern Cognitive Map, the author describes the character at hand: “They are invariably male, urbane… and either bored with life or caught up with little things such as food or clothing. Further, they are not at all interested in, much less committed to, social or political struggle” (309). The author of this work understands the relationship between consumerism and existentialism insofar as character development is concerned by highlighting social anxiety as expressed through commodity fetish and personality. The protagonist, a data-shuffler Calcutec, is a loner. Taking a peculiar interest in trivial objects around him, he notices and gives undue attention to paperclips, music CDs, and clothes, while constantly womanizing. Chiyoko notes, “Murakami’s narrative makes use of this ‘parade of trivia’ as an intermediary factor, as something connecting characters who seem too isolated to explore any social relationship on their own” (320).   In a sense, this character is the archetypical Hardboiled detective in his antipathy towards the happenings of the world and embrace of simple living. Such an introverted character design is prone to failure in social-consumerist society; preferring introspective solitude invariably results in a strain of isolation which can only be transcended through integration into the extrovert universe, an undertaking not likely to happen with a character who spends most of his time in his apartment.

This is the hyperreality of the first world in which the protagonist lives. One in which “Emotions appear only as a shared reaction to a certain consumer good, or as its by-product” (Murakami, The Unfinished Cartographer 323). Naturally flowing from this spectacle is the desire to escape. Indeed this is exactly what the protagonist does; finding no reason to remain in the hyperreality, he commits himself to an eternal death and plunges into the unreality of his core-consciousness. Once there, he lives out a recurring life in which he finds a new profession reading and releasing the Old Dreams from unicorn skulls.

The protagonist’s occupation as Dreamreader is therefore suited to his lifestyle, as Haruki Murakami writes in Hardboiled: “from now on you must go to the library every day and read dreams. That will be your job. Go there at six in the evening. Stay there until six or eleven at night… how long [you will stay there] I cannot say” (39). His only supporting character is the librarian who feeds him during his work, she is unique insofar as unlike his other contacts, she comforts and aids him in making major decisions relating to the town; outside of work, his only interaction is with the Colonel in the morning and briefly with the Gatekeeper when he attempts to visit his shadow. Both characters are hard men who have little time for existential consideration. In turn, this grants him plenty of time for self-reflection which sheds light on the fact that he is marooned inside his own mind. Therefore the reader witnesses the introduction of true existentialism. The prime question ravaging his sub-conscious is: what purpose is there to live (return to the “other world”) when the pleasures of pseudo-immortality reign so prominently in his existence in the unreality?

Such contradiction shows itself in the protagonist’s dialogue with his shadow: “I am beginning to feel an attachment to this town. I enjoy watching the beasts… no one hurts each other here, no one fights. Life is uneventful, but full enough in its way. Everyone is equal” (Murakami, Hardboiled 333). Adoration such as this is indicative of the protagonist’s prime contradiction in life: he understands his situation is not a complete existence, yet he is unable to tear away from it due to the soul crushing depravity of hyperreality. That, as illogical as it sounds, he is preferring comfortable imprisonment over uncomfortable freedom.

Postmodern Connotations and their Allegorical Impressions

            It must be said, however, that the existential search which Hardboiled’s protagonist undergoes is partly allegorical in nature. Kawakami says, Murakami “represents the current cognitive map of Tokyo, and Japan, where the individual’s social ties, once easily attainable-or even taken for granted-by identifying oneself as a member of [a]… (family),… (company), or… (the nation-state)-have become less sustainable” (333). Looking at the postmodernist Hardboiled Wonderland segments, what is seen is grave contrast identifying with the modernism of the End of the World segments: production and consumerism, visibility (or lack thereof) of power, integration of the mass media, and the presence of ideals. “Unable to locate a position in society, individuals become alienated and end up confined within a phantom world of their own making, the simulacrum constructed out of fabricated images” (Murakami, The Unfinished Cartographer 330). Understanding this reveals that the theme which Murakami has written about applies not only toward an existential mode of analysis, but a postmodern one, as well. Meaning that without the hyperreality influencing the protagonist’s imagination, the creation of unreality would be impossible; therefore, the separation between hyperreality and unreality represents (in reverse) the transition from modernity to postmodern Japan.

Illustrating this requires insight into the novel. According to Fuminobu Murakami, the dystopia presented in Haruki Murakami’s book is (after the discarding of evolution) the result of disenchantment with rationality and power. Understanding the postmodernism of hyperreality as “an attack on the legitimacy of rationality which focuses not only upon scientific truth… but also upon morality and rational consensus, (128)” the decision on the protagonist’s part to live in a community that values the same virtues found within his work is the author’s method of presenting a reactionary worldview: Japan must take a step back and reintroduce aspects of modernism into postmodern society in order to once more be nationally content. It is because of this that the fall of the protagonist into his core consciousness is presented in reverse, as compared to the real world progression; it is in order to illustrate the superiority of unreality and modernism (represented here as one in the same), that it first must be shown the decadence of hyperreality and postmodernism (once more represented as one in the same).

Beyond Utopia: Reimagining Dystopia

            Despite this iteration, though, the protagonist’s journey is more than nuance. Embracing views which emphasize the social-commentary negates the existential leaning which (as previously shown) remains a crucial part of the plot; if it is true that the construction of both worlds align with what may be loosely called post-postmodern theory, then how does this narrative reconcile the parallel existential narrative? The clear-cut answer is that it does not. Because of this, the narrative needs to be modified. My contributions will build upon the aforementioned conceptual apparatuses while altering the one-sided discourse thereby synthesizing the complete thesis.

As previously shown the protagonist in Haruki Murakami’s book is one in search of identity. Specifically he is one suffering under the heel of postmodern society. Beyond his preference to remain alone he is a womanizer (8), has drinking problems (190), lacks practical education (192), and cannot bring himself to make his own life decisions (391). As shown from the scene in which he sings Danny Boy (365) and laments the passing of the seasons (110), he most likely suffers from depression. Additionally, his career as a data shuffler does not give him any peace of mind. Near the end of the novel, it is revealed that he longs for exclusion from the so-called “info wars” (361) and wishes to live peacefully.

In contrast to this existence the life he leads in the End of the World segments is dramatic; he is at ease, content even. Serving the author’s subtext, the reader witnesses the Dreamreader protagonist finally relax. Of course this relaxation is a process, only one which emerges through the passing of time and the encountering of Woodfolk whom retain aspects of their shadows. “[The Woodfolk] can exert an influence over you. You are not yet formed as a person here” (146). He will only be a fully formed person when his shadow dies, consequently destroying his mind. What is the mind, though? This is known: because the mind holds emotions and memories, the shadow’s death signifies that his shadow is part of his mind, his Ego; personhood comes only with the ascension of the Id (himself, as witnessed in the final scene).

Such a metaphysical coup is troublesome. Considering the existential concept of “Existence Preceding Essence” as well as Angst (“existential crisis”), a major battle ensues. With the first concept being defined as living life free of stereotypes and coerced lifestyle, while the latter as a fear of the future, numerous faults in the protagonist’s profile become obvious and are at odds with Steffen Hantke understanding of Haruki Murakami’s central figures, Hantke writes in his article (“Postmodernism and Genre Fiction as Deferred Action: Haruki Murakami and the Noir Tradition”) : “[Murakami’s] heroes, if they arrive at a solution to the mystery at all, do so by means other than rational analysis; their modus operandi, as well as their mode of existence, is existential, ironically playful, and largely textual” (5). Objectively examining the protagonist’s actions tell that he is not living life free from coercion- in hyperreality, he shifts aimlessly from job to job, never accepting a shuffling contract without the proper authorization; while, in unreality, he consents to having his shadow stripped, despite reservations, and casually allows himself to be placed into the position of Dreamreader. Clearly, his existence precludes “existence preceding essence.” Conclusions may be derived from textual and playful scenarios, yet not existential ones. This is shown further when he chooses to stay behind in the town while his shadow returns to hyperreality; hesitancy to return indicates insecurity with his actions, something which a happily defined individual would never fall victim to. However, because Hantke’s article assaults Chiyoko Kawakami’s allegorical posit, the tendency to include existential behavior into a section unraveling the existential leanings of the Hard-Boiled world becomes necessary. Hantke asserts that “Critics in pursuit of the novel’s allegorical significance rely on the assumption that the End of the World is a projection, a compensatory construct which emerges in Hard-Boiled Wonderland(19). If this is taken at face value, the resulting meaning is that unreality and hyperreality are differing sides of the same coin only without real world significance to the author. Such a concept is false because it is understood that the protagonist’s actions in hyperreality represented existentialism for at least a small time when he discovered the program lying in wait in his mind. The transition to unreality therefore with its culling of the protagonist’s Ego is seen as anti-existentialism, or nihilism; in the context at hand (two distinct realities impacting a character in such a profound manner), it is therefore impossible to isolate the allegorical meaning without negating the concept of the book- perpetual decay in the search for self-realization. To negate it in its totality, Chiyoko Kawakami would need to prove decisively that existentialism is the driving force behind both worlds; yet instead opting for a blanket statement, he does not.

The edifice of this anti-existentialism is revealed through the parting conversation the protagonist has with his shadow: “I have responsibilities… I cannot forsake the people and places and things I have created.” This is an odd phrasing: he has worldly responsibility in a prison? His shadow correctly assuages his anti-existentialist musing: “Maybe you can’t die here, but you will not be living. You will merely exist. There is no ‘why’ in a world that would be perfect in itself… You’ll be trapped for all eternity” (Murakami, Hardboiled 399). Ergo, the futility of his existence while dwelling in his unreality is revealed: existential living cannot happen when one lingers on the border between life and death; an undead consciousness need not be considered a viable conduit when the purpose of one’s eternal life allows for unlimited possibilities. Redundancy alone renders any meaning in existential philosophy, as applied to unreality, as null and void.

Existentialism Expressed

            Using the text to definitively prove the validity of existential action within the Hardboiled Wonderland sections, one sees a striking difference from the false existentialism of the previously critiqued world. Hyperreality shows fully formed decisions. Although this does not take center stage until later in the book, nonetheless the underlying concept remains valid: Authentic Existence is achievable only in the wasteland of modern capitalism; modernity/ unreality is incapable of unleashing the full potential of the human mind; only postmodernism/ hyperreality may do so.

Upon learning that the world as he knows it is nearing its end, the protagonist teams up with the professor’s daughter. Together they search for the old man, the only person who knows how to stop the apocalypse. He understands that he has intrinsic value in the world. Nevertheless, he feels a pang of regret over the material possessions (friends, one might call them considering these commodities social relations are more prevalent in the protagonist’s endeavors that that of any actual human being) that he has lost in discovering this looming doom: “I stopped to take one last look at my scrap heap of an apartment. Once again, life had a lesson to teach me: it takes years to build up, it takes moments to destroy.” So with a heavy heart he sets out, the recitation of a remorseful poem the only comfort borne “The Splendor of the fields, the glory of the flowers, I recited under my breath. Then I reached up and pulled the breaker switch to cut off the electricity” (187). This scene is an important moment for it denotes self-propelled action. The protagonist chose to leave behind his shattered life, electing to journey to find the professor, and deciding to affect the lives of those around him. This is the start of “Existence precedes Essence” motif and the rescinding of previously held social-categories which ensnared his life. Similar actions are found later in the novel when, after learning his fate-perpetual dreaming; he embarks upon a momentous shopping spree, a decision which brings the narrative around to the originating theory, only this time perfected, the corrupting traits exercised.

Both these actions are undertakings only attainable in hyperreality. Questing for a greater good has no place in a supposedly perfect community. Likewise, nor does societal expression through commodities. In both instances, the collective has quashed the need for action, effectively precluding existential rationality. Unreality lacks the basic socio-economic/political economic demands required for individual self-realization. Hyperreality, it is true, lacks the consoling delusion of unreality, yet replaces such niceties with self-awareness.

Existence is not tantamount to existentialism. Simply being “alive” does not foreclose the possibility that an individual is not truly participating in society. Everyone contributes uniquely to their epoch, the social relations manifested by commodities a guardian of such promises. However, these initiatives are denied in environments non-conducive to defining existence. Therefore, if the primary question is the examination of current society as shown in foreign literature, as well as if existential theories act as a fulcrum, then favoritism must be utilized. Unreality, though preferable to some for its utopia/dystopia, cannot succeed in liberating humanity from postmodern hyperreality. Only the concentrated actions of the masses are able to revolutionize society, break away from their binding economic chains, and move it forever closer to a classless spectacle.

Works Cited

Hantke, Steffen. “Postmodernism and Genre Fiction as Deferred Action: Haruki Murakami and the Noir Tradition.” Critique 49.1 (2007): 3-23. Print.

An exploration of how Haruki Murakami utilizes Noir tradition in negating postmodern narratives. This article serves as the counter-narrative in my essay as compared to my other two sources who advocate for either allegorical significance or postmodern construction.

Kawakami, Chiyoko. “The Unfinished Cartography: Murakami Haruki and the Postmodern Cognitive Map.” Monumenta Nipponica 57.3 (2002): 309-37. Print.

An argument centered on the thesis that persuades the reader into examining Murakami’s text as an allegorical representation of the transition from Modernist to Postmodernist Japan using psychological vehicles as context.

Murakami, Fuminobu. “Murakami Haruki’s Postmodern World.” Japan Forum 14.1 (2002): 127-41. Print.

An argument which explores Modernist concepts found in Murakami’s work to a more full degree than my other sources, this article introduces existential concepts which I utilize with my own theory to draw the conversation out to its ultimate conclusion.

Haruki, Murakami. “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.” New York: Vintage, (1993): Print.


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